In 2003, when the house on 107th Street in Corona finally opened to the public as a museum, the man whose name it bore had been dead for over three decades. The rooms themselves, and their unconventional furnishings, had actually changed very little during that time, and the place looked and felt virtually the same as when the man had died up in the back bedroom, the one at the top of the stairs with the crazy chandelier.
The front doorbell still rang in an alluring multi-toned chime. The second-floor intercom could still conceivably facilitate the arrival of an ice bucket (for cocktails), while those lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those cocktails could still conceivably lounge in the famous den just down the hall. In was in this small oak-paneled room, 40-odd years ago, that the man talked of baseball, and boxing — and music. He sometimes told dirty jokes. He tended to use certain words — words like “cats” and “chicks” and “cool,” and “dig.” These words, if not all of the man’s own coining, were disseminated through his usage, and by 1965 they had all passed into common parlance, though most people who used them probably didn’t know that.
When the man passed six years later, his widow carried on and kept the house much as it had been during their thirty years of marriage. But when she died quite suddenly in 1983, the house stood empty. Eventually it went to the city. Twenty years later, it opened as a museum.
Today, the doorbell still chimes the same chimes, and the intercom — although in working order — is rarely used. But the bedroom chandelier still glistens with a gaudy radiance, and the den still buzzes with conversation. Through the windowpanes, on a random afternoon in mid-February, one can still hear the cries of kids in the street, and the houses look pretty much the same as they did back in the day. Some of the local teens come to the man’s house after school and hang out in the converted garage (it’s a gift shop now), where they chatter amicably about pop music, computers, and — on occasion — the guy that died up in that back bedroom.
The house is, of course, Louis Armstrong’s, and when he and his wife Lucille moved here in 1943, this was a mostly German-Irish neighborhood. Louis never had any kids of his own, but they who were Louis’s children then are still Louis’s children today. They arrive like pilgrims, often in pairs, sometimes alone, but all with the same discernible purpose in mind. They want to see where he lived. Where he ate. Where he slept and watched TV. And where he died. They come from places like Seattle, Santa Barbara and Tennessee. But just as many touch down from as far away as Norway, Greece and Tokyo.
And the neighborhood children are here. Some are even savvy enough to lead tours of the place on their own. At first, the visitors lean towards skepticism, but then the kids start talking.
On a bright Tuesday in early winter, a white panel truck pulls up in front of the house, and a bald-headed black man in coveralls comes sprinting towards the gift shop.
“I’m here!” he says, breathlessly. “I’ve been meaning to come! And I’ve made it!”
His truck sits idling in the street, the keys dangling in the ignition.
“Where are you from?” asks one of the older kids.
“Belgian Congo,” says the man, still breathing hard, “It’s the DRC now.”
“Come with me,” says the boy, without missing a beat.
He leads him into an inner room.
“This was his rec room.” The boy enunciates clearly. “He had a pool table in here.”
The man looks around. One of the plexiglas cases houses an African drum and a Chinese menu. There’s a gold-plated trumpet in another.
“Look,” says the boy, “I want to show you something.”
He grabs a remote and hits play.
It’s a black and white video of a huge outdoor concert. The man from upstairs is playing for a crowd of 500,000 Ghanaians.
The man watches. Music fills the room.
“He came to the Congo when I was a boy, in 1960,” he says, “They had a parade. I remember his car going by. When he came, there was a war going on. But they stopped the fighting. They stopped it for him.”
“I know,” says the boy, smiling as he watches the monitor. “They stopped a war for him. Cool, right?”
Todd Bryant Weeks is a jazz historian and writer. His first book, a biography of the trumpeter Hot Lips Page, will be published by Routledge Press in 2008. He can be reached at Todd.Weeks@qc.cuny.edu.